Friday, October 29, 2010

This week

  • I worked too damned hard and
  • I slept too damned little and
  • I started and stopped too many disappointing books and
  • I wrote not one sentence and
  • I contributed not one whit to the class struggle
all of which have something to do with not blogging. I'm not in a fugue state or anything, but it's just been one of those weeks when getting to work and back is pretty much all I could manage. I've been collecting stuff for this blog, though, wisps of this and wonders of that, so I should be back soon with some substantive words.

Speaking of words and what I haven't done, I believe something else happened this week. I can't quite be sure, for who knows, I may yet flare back into rage and resistance, but I think I entered the last stage of the mourning process over not getting my novel published. Acceptance, or something like it. Something finally clicked, it seems, and I recognized this is one dream, the dearest dream I've ever dared, at least on the puny level of my own little life, that's dead. I'm nearly ready to make my peace with this, it seems. I'll never know why I failed, I'll never know if it's all about the market and the industry and all the changes and so on and I would have succeeded had this book been written 10 years ago, or if it's simply not good enough for any bookshelf. No way to know. So frustrating. In my long, initially enthused and energetic and ultimately sporadic, pessimistic and doomed effort to find a route to publication for this novel into which I poured so much of my heart and soul, I mostly found firmly closed doors--but I also had enough responses of the "it's not for me but it's great and I'm sure it'll find a home" variety that I kept slogging onward, kept holding onto hope, probably much longer than I should have. If the hope, better recognized as delusion, has at last slipped out of my grip it's a good thing, I think, a relief, to finally put the sucker away and shut that drawer. Who knows, maybe I'll open it again some day after I finish the second novel I'm now writing.

That kind of week, right? And to top it off, the travesty of all travesties came last night on Project Runway when the awful, hypocritical, pinched, smug, myopic, uncreative, anti-innovation, bourgeois judges snatched victory away from the miraculous Mondo Guerra, who'd clearly earned it. This is the second season in a row that the obviously superior designer was passed over for the PR prize and the obviously superior designer was Latino. Last year it was Emilio Sosa. Nor can we forget how Korto Momolu was robbed a few seasons back. In fact, only once has a person of color won PR. In the thousands of tweets, blog entries, columns and commentaries that you can find today on the PR finale, 99 percent of them horrified laments at the outcome, quite a few characterize this and past decisions as racist. It's hard to argue with that interpretation.

Next week: next week!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Howl & how not to hear poetry

Last night I watched the movie Howl. It's still showing in theaters but cheaper to see via cable's movies on demand gizmo that also keeps me home, which is where I mostly prefer to be and which I might add is, unlike movie theaters, guaranteed (so far at least) to be bedbug-free. But I digress. Howl. James Franco was great as the young Allen Ginsberg. Much of the movie consists of Franco, as Ginsberg, talking to an unseen interviewer about poetry, about the poetic process, himself as a poet, his life and its connection to his poetry, and about his great poem Howl. I found these segments riveting. I'd have happily sat through two hours of just this. There are also courtroom scenes, from the 1957 obscenity trial in San Francisco where the state tried to ban the City Lights publication of Howl in book form. While not fascinating the way Ginsberg talking about poetry was, these segments are interesting too. Interspersed with both are scenes of Ginsberg reading the poem in, I assume, San Francisco, in 1955. I very much liked this too, Franco's bravura capture of Ginsberg's unique persona.

What I did not like one bit were the animated sequences. These are literal, if whimsical, depictions of various passages from the poem that take over the screen enacting the words that we hear in voiceover. For me, they damned near ruined the movie. I can only guess that the filmmakers worried they would not hold an audience's interest with only the scenes of Ginsberg talking, Ginsberg reading his poem, and testimony at the obscenity trial, that they had to insert some visually arresting element. Well. I think it would have worked if the visual element had been abstract, suggestive, evocative, something to simply capture the eye, perhaps hypnotize us further into the poetic dream as the words washed over us aurally. Instead what we get is an interruption, a barging in on our attention to the poem's words, rhythms, layers of meaning, a most unwelcome assault on our ability to take in the poetry. An intrusion! I wanted to scream and throw something at the screen every time the animations appeared.

The problem, for me at least--and I know this sounds odd and contradictory but it isn't really--is that literature is not a literal art form. Poetry least of all. Yet with these animations in which the "story" of Howl is acted out, Ginsberg's creation is removed from the ineffable realm of imagination and yanked back down to earth, reduced to a matter of plot and character and this and that. To me this feels like a sad disservice to a great poet and a great poem.

I've read Howl twice (and now definitely want to read it again). There's no way I came close, in either of those readings, to truly understanding it. But, as with any quality literature, poetry or fiction, reading it was an intereactive experience between the words and me, between the mind of the poet and the mind of the reader, with me, the reader, my reading brain, creating images, ideas, feelings from the words created by the writer. As any writer knows, book, story, or poem, no reader reads the same thing. The words may be the same in every edition, yet every reader's brain makes of the writer's words something else. Even with fiction, even with the most straightforward conventionally written plot-driven story or novel, the act of reading is an imaginative, creative act--what each reader sees in her mind's eye is her own translation of the writer's words. This is what I mean when I say literature is not a literal art form--although on one level there is nothing more precise than words, on another, the most meaningful level, I think, the words serve as merely a sort of gateway, opening up worlds that the reader enters and creates as she reads. This is the interactive alliance between writer and reader. This is why reading, at least when the material you're reading is at the level of art, is a thrilling and creative act.

It's also why I generally feel that movies aren't the sublime art form that literature is, a view that I know opens me to all sorts of attack and that, truthfuly, I probably can't defend terribly articulately and am even willing to allow might turn out to be harebrained once someone argues me out of it. Till then, though, I can't help but feel that because movies depict everything right there on the screen, show every character's facial expressions, broadcast every character's voice, breathing, tone, tears, display brick buildings, green fields, bullets, blood, and so on--because, that is, they leave little or nothing to the viewer's imagination, they can't and don't achieve what books can. I think this is why film adaptations of books almost always disappoint. It's not just that Hollywood's crass profit-driven aesthetic sabotages any hope of capturing the depth and beauty of a great novel. It's that, just by the act of taking all those words that had been left to the reader's imagination to conjure into images and ideas each inside her own mind, taking those words, stripping them of multiple levels of meaning and alternate interpretations and transforming them into one inescapable literal depiction, the movie by definition destroys, subverts, dumbs down, dare I say erases the art from, the novel, story or poem.

To me, that's what the animation does in this movie. Otherwise, it would have been an intelligent, interesting consideration of art, the artistic process, the clash of art and commerce, censorship, gay oppression, all spiced with enough exciting readings of parts of Howl to entice viewers to read, or reread, Ginsberg's masterpiece. It's still that, but just barely, because, for this viewer at least, the animation sequences deny me entry into the heart of the poem and the mind of the poet.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mountains That Take Wing

Here's a new movie, over a decade in the making as I understand it, coming soon to cities around the country. Mountains That Take Wing centers on a series of conversations between Angela Davis and Yuri Kochiyama, two women who have loomed large in the struggles of the last 40-50 years in this country, and so of course is also about those struggles. Davis is widely known in and out of the movement. Kochiyama is less so to those who haven't themselves been involved, yet she is a true hero and it's great that she's getting this spotlight now, as this wonderful sister is in failing health as she nears 90. Among other things, she held Malcolm X in her arms as he lay dying after the assassin's bullets struck him in 1965. But the reason she was there, how she came to be there, and where she went from there, this larger story is, I hope, what the movie shows.

I want to see this film.

Poesia, Reading & Depth

This is NYC Latin@ Pride Week 2010, sponsored by Unid@s, the national organization for LGBT Latin@s. The week includes many events by, for and about the vibrant LGBT Latino community of this city.

Last night, thanks to the kind invitation of a friend, I attended Sin Fronteras: A Night of Poesia, Reading & Depth at the Phoenix Bar on the lower east side.
It was great to get a chance to hear these writers and poets read, several I've heard of and several whose names were new to me. I was particularly taken with the work of Brandon Lacy Campos--with him, as he was a charming host/M.C., and especially with his poetry, which was indeed fierce and deep. Check out his blog My Feet Only Walk Forward. The latest post is his newest poem "H-I-ME," which he read last night.

It was good to get out and listen to some young writers' work. It reminded me that I need to do this more often.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bravo Leigh, bravo Abulhawa

Bravo to Mike Leigh, the great British film director, for canceling his plans to teach in Israel. In a letter made public last week, Leigh labeled his earlier reluctance to take a stand "cowardice." Now, he says, given everything--given Gaza, given the attack on the Freedom Flotilla, given the loyalty oath legislation--he cannot go to Israel, does not want to go, will not go.

Leigh, who is Jewish (original family name: Lieberman), is now of course taking terrible heat from the Zionist state's supporters. Those for self-determination for Palestine are relieved that he corrected his initial error. I'm of course in the latter group, as well as a great admirer of the work of this artist of the cinema, work that has been unfailingly class-conscious, so I find this welcome news.

Meanwhile, here in the States, this past Saturday Palestinian-American novelist Susan Abulhawa took the stage with rabid Zionist Alan Dershowitz at a Harvard University literary forum. Abulhawa, whose wonderful novel Mornings in Jenin I read and wrote about in early 2009, was sharp and winning while Dershowitz, pushing his new novel The Trials of Zion, was in typical racist bullying form. Bravo to Abulhawa for her guts and grit in speaking truth to power. Watch it here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

My Princess Boy

As the quest for more books to counter the bashers and bulliers continues, here comes this: My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis. This is a picture book about "how to accept young boys who might cross traditional gender line clothing expectations" and the need to "accept and support youth for whoever they are and however they wish to look."

Kilodavis wrote the book based on the experiences of her family and her young son who likes to dress up like a princess. It looks like a great contribution, from a beautiful family. Here they are recently on a Seattle morning show.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Four points

1. Fragments, a book of "poems, intimate notes and letters" by Marilyn Monroe, is just out.
I'm interested in reading it. For many reasons, related to Joyce Carol Oates, to Monroe the serious reader (which I've blogged about, a post I can't seem to find), to ephemeral other points of departure.

2. This too interests me. Disconnect by Devra Davis. Almost as much as it terrifies me. The terror? Perhaps the book's subtitle will provide a clue: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family. Should you see fit to join me in fearville, check out this interview with the author at Yikes! Not that I talk on my cell phone much, hardly at all in fact. Still I'm sticking to my yikes.

3. Over three weeks since I finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, I haven't stopped thinking about it. Every day something brings it to mind, or rather some point or passage from the book rises in my mind and something I've seen or heard gets refracted through it. It is an indispensable trove of information, insight and analysis. How pissed off have I been, then, since yesterday's announcement of this year's National Book Award nominations? Very pissed off. It seems impossible that Isabel Wilkerson's masterwork was passed over. Patti Smith's memoir? OK, yeah, sure, we all love Patti Smith, nice that she got the nod, but jeez, it's as if a culinary award went to a single lovely quirky grain of rice while a great brilliant magnificently complex risotto was ignored. WTF?! And yes fine it's inconsistent to complain, or even care, given all I know, all I've ranted about, regarding the character of these establishment literary awards. Doesn't it say a lot, though, that the literary establishment can't bring itself to acknowledge a book like Wilkerson's?

4. I also can't stop thinking about the ongoing rash of suicides by lesbian and gay youths. Today, happily, a couple items that point in a more positive direction. This editorial in Workers World, about the role of the struggle. And this, finally: a youngster who's been the victim of anti-gay bullying launches a protest. Marco Melgoza, our hero!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Against Columbus Day, with Eduardo Galeano

Last week I read Genesis, the first book in the Memory of Fire trilogy about the history of the Americas by Eduardo Galeano. I'd been looking for this book, for all three books, for a while, but they seemed to be out of print and I was even having trouble finding them in any library. Now, though, no doubt because of the resurgence of interest in Galeano's work thanks to Venezuela President Hugo Chavez presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with Open Veins of Latin America at a summit last year, the trilogy has been reissued in a new edition by Nation Books.

This first volume, Genesis, starts with the pre-invasion era and ends at about 1700. It is devastating. History as I have never before read it. In language so finely crafted that for the first hundred pages or so I was reading under the misapprehension that this is a novel. Creatively, originally, imaginitively as Galeano tells it, however, this is not fiction. Every word is true. On every page, a revelation. Even if you have long since been disencumbered of the lies about Columbus as courageous explorer, conquistadors as dashing heroes, invasion and occupation and genocide and chattel slavery as manifest destiny--there is much to learn in these pages. Much horror, pain, evil; also much courage, resistance, beauty. Here it is, laid out for us by Galeano, here it is just as it happened. It is our duty, I think, especially those of us who support the struggles of indigenous peoples, of people of African descent, and of the Latin American left, to face it, know it, arm ourselves with it, so that we can be better, truer fighters.

What a wonderful counter, then, to the imperialist holiday honoring the racist colonizers. Read Genesis--read it and weep, read it and be inspired, read it and re-enter the struggle filled anew with righteous anger. I'm looking forward to the next two volumes. From Galeano to the genocidal invaders: take that, Columbus!

Here's an excerpt from the opening section of Genesis, which consists of creation myths and other lore from various of the original nations of the Americas. This one, in a way harsh yet at the same time whimsical, offers an explanation of how patriarchy began:
In remote times women sat in the bow of the canoe and men in the stern. It was the women who hunted and fished. They left the villages and returned when they could or wanted. The men built the huts, prepared the meals, kept the fires burning against the cold, minded the children, and tanned skins for clothes.
Such was life for the Ona and Yagan Indians in Tierra del Fuego, until the day the men killed all the women and put on the masks that the women had invented to scare them.
Only newly born girls were spared extermination. While they grew up, the murderers kept repeating to them that serving men was their destiny. They believed it. Their daughters believed it, too, likewise the daughters of their daughters.
Most of the rest of the book tells bitter bitter truths from the days after the Europeans arrived. What they did is unspeakable. What their inheritors still do carries on their crimes. A reckoning will come. Read Genesis yourself, to remind yourself of why.Today of all days.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

John Brown's Body

One week from today is the 151st anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry led by one of the great heroes of U.S. history, the anti-slavery warrior John Brown. I've written about Brown before here at Read Red. I've also written about him for Workers World newspaper, a 2006 piece about his great military campaigns in Kansas and one last year about Harper's Ferry. You'll find several books about Brown in my list of recommended titles at right, and this is a good moment to mention again some of the best: A Voice From Harper's Ferry by Osborne P. Anderson, John Brown by W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown, Abolitionist by David Reynolds, and the novel Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.

So yeah, you get it: I've got a thing for John Brown. Now I've got a brand new thing, about John Brown, new to me, that is, and my favorite kind of thing at that.

 A book! Not just any book. A beautiful book, a kind, generous and unexpected gift from a friend of Read Red. This is John Brown's Body, a book-length poem by Stephen Vincent Benet. Originally published to great acclaim in 1928, this edition was issued by the Book of the Month Club in 1954, and it's in excellent condition, a tiny tad tattered but basically well preserved (a fair description of book and me, both the same age).

This is an epic of the Civil War. It ranges widely over it and deeply into it, or at least this is my impression from a couple weeks of sort of sniffing my way around it. Its politics won't come clear for me, I don't think, until I can actually sit down and read through the whole thing, but I'm guessing Benet's take won't entirely please me; he was on the right side, it seems, but it also seems that he tried in the poem to be "fair" to the wrong side too, not a stance with which I sympathize.

The main thing, though, is Brown. I can't wait to see his treatment of Brown. The poem is not "about" John Brown--it's about the big issue, about slavery, about the war it took to end the system of human chattel labor--but the title Benet gave it shows that he saw the giant shadow Brown cast. I'm eager to see what he has to say about that, and about him.

I have snuck some peeks at the end, which do come back to Brown, and more, and will close with a bit of it:
He was a stone, this man who lies so still,
A stone flung from a sling against a wall,
A sacrificial instrument of kill,
A cold prayer hardened to a musket-ball;
And yet, he knew the uses of a hill,
And he must have his justice, after all.
He was a lover of certain pastoral things,
He had the shepherd's gift.
When he walked at peace, when he drank from the watersprings,
His eyes would lift
To see God, robed in a glory, but sometimes, too
Merely the sky,
Untroubled by wrath or angels, vacant and blue,
Vacant and high.
He knew not only doom but the shape of the land,
Reaping and sowing,
He could take a lump of any earth in his hand
And feel the growing.
He was a farmer, he didn't think much of towns,
The wheels, the vastness.
He liked the wide fields, the yellows, the lonely browns,
The black ewe's fastness.
Out of his body grows revolving steel,
Out of his body grows the spinning wheel
Made up of wheels, the new, mechanic birth,
No longer bound by toil
To the unsparing soil
Or the old furrow-line,
The great, metallic beast
Expanding Westg and East,
His heart a spinning coil,
His juice burning oil,
His body serpentine.
Out of John Brown's strong sinews the tall skyscrapers grew,
Out of his heart the chanting buildings rise,
River and girder, motor and dynamo,
Pillar of smoke by day and fire by night,
The steel-faced cities reaching at the skies,
The whole enormous and rotating cage
Hung with hard jewels of electric light,
Smoky with sorrow, black with splendor, dyed
Whiter than damask for a crystal bride
With metal suns, the engine-handed Age,
The genie we have raised to rule the earth,
Obsequious to our will
But servant-master still,
The tireless serf already half a god

Friday, October 8, 2010

Love Struggle: a letter from Lynne Stewart

A couple days ago I found the most exciting treat in the day's mail: a letter from Lynne Stewart! A card, actually, but filled up on all three sides with her handwritten note. I'd written Lynne back in January and sure enough, as her husband Ralph Poynter had predicted when he told me that she replies to every letter she gets even if it takes her a while, she now replied. My letter, of course, was an expression of love, support, solidarity, and I'll be damned if her reply wasn't the same.

We don't know each other personally. As I'd noted when I wrote her, we've been in the same room at meetings and rallies, on the same picket lines, at the same demonstrations many times over the years, we've smiled, even hugged, and so I think she probably knows my face, would recognize me to say hello, but she doesn't know me by name--yet I feel such a kinship, a closeness with her, because of who she is and what she's done. A love. And her card to me was also filled with a love. Love of those of us on the outside who support her, of her comrades in the fight to fix the world, of all the workers and oppressed.

To cynics, or those deeply in thrall of bourgeois consciousness whether or not they realize it, perhaps all this talk of love cloys. They're missing the whole point of the revolutionary project. It's appropriate to dwell on the point today of all days. For today is the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Che Guevara, our beautiful brother who cared for nothing but human liberation and who said not long before he died:
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.
Which brings us back to Lynne Stewart. Today is also her birthday. She's 71 today. Seventy-one years spent mostly defending the rights of the poor, the discriminated against, the brutalized, the radicals, the militants, the fighters for fairness and justice, against racism and war. During most of her long career, she was little known outside the movement. But the enemy class knew very well of her work, wanted badly to bring her down, and made their move a few years ago under the guise of the "war on terrorism." Now this devoted, brilliant, humble and beloved advocate for people's rights sits in prison.

This evening, supporters will gather outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan where she's incarcerated, and sing Happy Birthday while those inside join in serenading her. I can't go to stand and sing because I'm still supposed to be staying off my feet after a minor medical procedure, but as the fight to free her proceeds I'll be there, lending whatever strength I can to this dear dear sister.
Lynne signed her note to me LS. Not just her initials, these two letters stand for Love Struggle, her slogan. She's for love and she's for struggle. And she loves the struggle. She embodies, then, what Che was talking about.

One other thing. Lynne is a big reader. In her note to me, and also in a statement she released to an anti-war conference over the summer, she talked about Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist of Swedish author Stieg Laarson's bestselling trilogy of which the best known novel is the first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Various folks have recommended these books to me but I've pooh-poohed their suggestion. Not because I'm a snob, I hope, not because I have anything against bestsellers; I've read more than a few myself. Only because I'm always disappointed in these murder thriller/detective/mystery novels. But now I've got Lynne Stewart's word that these books are worth reading. I'm putting them on my list.

Tear down the walls! Free Lynne Stewart, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier and all political prisoners!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Nobel hand to the counter-revolution

Latin America is indisputably a vital center of the struggle for socialism. In so many places, the working class and oppressed peoples are in motion. In country after country, exciting, even revolutionary developments are under way. Is there a cultural component to this upsurge? Of course there is. Is there a revolutionary Spanish-language literature? You bet.

Naturally, then, this year's Nobel prize in literature went to a committed counter-revolutionary. In fact, yesterday, just before the prize was announced, Mario Vargas Llosa was being heckled and booed in Chile by indigenous people for his alliance with reaction. Vargas Llosa, who himself ran for president of Peru on a right-wing ticket back in the 1990s, is actually supporting and campaigning for the Pinochet-ist party in the current Chilean elections.

In fact, the novelist is all over Latin America doing his ineffectual best to stomp out the fires of working-class struggle. He's quite the cheerleader for the anti-Chavista counterrevolution in Venezuela. I could go on with examples of his awfulness, but it's not as if it's in dispute. He's a spokesperson for capitalism, the system of oppression, exploitation, racism and mass misery. This is the guy's passion. In person and in print. For this, the Nobel.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Needing a break last night, I watched a movie I'd DVRd a couple weeks ago. Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. I'd loved it when it first came out in 2002, a time when I was deeply engaged in, nearly obsessed with, writing my first novel, but felt frustrated at having no other writers to discuss it with. This time--I loved it again! And I'll discuss it with you!

Briefly, because I have a busy day ahead and also because I can't claim to know anything about film as an art form; my reaction to this movie is all about one aspect, the aspect that seems to me to be central but I don't know if I'm right.

Anyway, to me this is a gloriously slant movie about creativity. About the impossible terror and horror of creating art. The story itself, all about "Charlie Kaufman"'s excruciating efforts to write a screenplay adaptation of New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's bestselling nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, all the while being driven up the wall by his doofus freeloading hack of a twin brother's concomitant effort to write his own derivative action-thriller-drivel screenplay, is hilarious and strangely touching. The scenes with Charlie berating himself in voiceovers about his failures as a writer, a few passages of which I'll share below, are priceless. I think any writer would probably react as I did, loving, recognizing, wallowing along with Charlie in the torture of art. And there's the question of how or whether to "adapt"; the movie teases out multiple meanings of that word, all of them fascinating. Ultimately, there's a brilliant turn as the plot plays out the alternative against which Charlie had struggled for the first two-thirds of the film, taking the road he wanted so desperately not to take, the road he'd tried so hard to turn away from in his quest to strike out in an original direction and find some new means of creative expression. So that the movie ends as a full-on satire of--or, you might say, a full-on ironic plunge into--all that is commercial, trite, lowest-common-denominator-shallow about Hollywood's product. With that, with Charlie and his movie becoming all he'd never wanted himself or his art to be but what Hollywood rewards with money and fame, with this adaptation to the way of the world, the movie ultimately becomes a profound meditation on what it is (and is not) to be an artist. What it means to stay true to your vision, or not.

I'll note here that I've had mixed feelings about other Charlie Kaufman movies I've seen. The other one that I loved was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which has as much to say about love, and in as new a way, as Adaptation has to say about art. On the other hand, I found Being John Malkovich misogynist. And I can't even begin to list my objections to the abysmal mess that is Synecdoche, New York.

Never mind that, let me finish with this, some lines from Adaptation. All are in voiceover, from the mind of the character Charlie Kaufman as he's trying to write the screenplay. The first is as he first sits down at the keyboard to begin.
Begin. How to start? I'm hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me, I think. I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. OK. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe banana nut. That's a good muffin. [He writes four or five sentences.] I need a break.
OMG--this is so me! Every time I sit down to write!

Later, as he stares at another blank page:
I have no understanding of anything else but my own panic and self-loathing and pathetic little existence. It's like the only thing I'm actually qualified to write about is myself.
Who hasn't felt this way? Finally, with my long, ongoing failure to get my first novel published, I can't help but relate to this.
My jaunt into the abyss brought me nothing. Well, isn't that just the risk one takes for attempting something new?
That's the spirit! That's the ticket! We carry on. As we must.

I won't be blogging again until at least late this week, possibly not till next week. I'll be on the couch eating bonbons for a couple days after taking care of a minor medical matter and then once I'm back at work it's back to the couch each evening, legs up, no computer. Till then, then, toodles.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Let's salute a survivor: I love Mondo!

It's been an intense, emotional day thinking and writing about this awful spate of suicides by LGBT young people tortured by this society. Thinking and writing in the spurts available, that is, before and after work and on my lunch hour. In fact, this was one of those days when I was glad to be on the job and have to focus on my work tasks all day, for sometimes dull and deadening can be a good thing. Anyway, as I was coming home this evening I remembered what I watched on TV last night and it felt like a bit of a balm because what I watched last night was all about one young gay man who survives, and on his own terms.

I'm talking about Mondo Guerra, the breakout designer and widely adored darling on the current season of Project Runway. Yes, I watch PR, annoying, maddening and offensive as I often find it and disgusted as I am by the industries it celebrates. So much for consistency--despite all I loathe about PR and the media, cosmetics and fashion profiteers it exists to enrich, I'm hooked on this damn show and I watch it week after week, alternately snarling and cheering.

It's all cheering when it comes to Mondo. He's a fabulously talented designer, so far ahead of this season's pack it's practically a joke. From the evidence of the broadcast episodes, he's also a mensch. If there have been no shots of him acting evil toward his competitors and speaking badly about them behind their backs, that means he has not done any of that because if he had we'd have seen it--this is the whole juice of these shows. (A topic in itself, so-called reality TV, which I've been threatening to blog about and yet may.) The one time Mondo slipped toward such bad behavior, he quickly caught himself, apologized to the camera and to his fellow designer Michael Costello, and that episode ended with this unbearably darling moment with the two of them basking in beautiful friendship.
Last night was Mondo's shining hour, and I'm even crazier about him than I already was for what he said and did. The designers' challenge was to create a textile from scratch inspired by something from their own lives. As they got to work, the designers were surprised by the arrival of family members. For Mondo, it was his mother, who'd been flown in from Denver. In one of his talking-head segments he spoke shyly and haltingly and so obviously sincerely, about his complicated relationship with his mother, about the deep mutual love between him and his family but how mother reacted less than optimally when he came out to her. It resonated for me as it must have for how many millions, how he's obviously grappled with these issues, the love, the rejection, the mutual hurt, the finding your own way through it, finding your way to yourself, to your strength.

But all that wasn't only about being gay. Mondo also told the camera that he's HIV-positive and has been for 10 years and has never told his family. The textile he created incorporated a design based on plus signs symbolizing his HIV-positive status. Yet after he spent the day visiting with his mother, he said that he'd wanted to tell her then and there but couldn't bring himself to cause her pain during this special time together. Throughout the episode he mused on camera about all this and wrestled with himself.

Then when the designers presented their finished pieces on the runway--and, once again, his was a knockout, and for the third week in a row he won--he initially just made a cryptic remark about his design having deep personal meaning for him. Later, though, and it's hard to know the real sequence of events or how much time had passed because of the editing, he spoke up again and said he wanted to tell the judges about the meaning of his design. And he came out as HIV-positive, which he characterized as a secret he'd kept for 10 years. Afterward, he was weepy with happiness and relief, saying he felt a huge weight off his shoulders.

"I'm free," he said.

There's a weekly party in Denver where Mondo watches each episode with friends and supporters. At last night's his family was there, and according to one report, "the Guerra family rallied bravely around Mondo, exemplifying the beauty of unconditional love."

I wish every queer kid contemplating suicide could have some time with Mondo Guerra. You just know he had a tough time of it in school. If he wasn't bullied and derided, called every anti-gay epithet and then some, I'd be shocked. His family wasn't perfectly supportive, not at first. He hung in there. He had hope, I can only assume, somehow he knew it would get better. And it did. If he's not a role model for being yourself and riding it out, I don't know who is.

Some pro-LGBT YA books to start with

Giant thank you to YA author Zetta Elliott, who quickly pointed me to a couple sites to start looking at LGBT books for children and teens.

First there's this list of Young Adult books that feature gay and lesbian characters of color courtesy of the blog The Happy Nappy Bookseller. Turns out I've read a couple of them--The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr, all of whose books I've loved, and A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar. One or two others I've heard of, the rest are new titles to add to my to-read list.

Then there's the blog I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell Do I Read?, whose whole purpose is to provide book information "for teens (queer or not), for librarians, for teachers, for booksellers, for people with teens in their lives and for anyone interested in YA books with GLBTQ characters and themes."

I also remembered a children's book that Teresa and I gave as a gift to a 2-year-old a few years ago. The Sissy Duckling by actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein. This is a sweet, lovely book with a delicious story and wonderful message. I don't remember if the 2-year-old liked it much, but we sure did.

Queer-positive books are absolutely vital for young people--not only for LGBT youths as aids to their self-esteem, as bulwarks against the devastating vicious mistreatment they so often receive at school and elsewhere. The really big challenge is to change the consciousness of their straight peers. What will it take to stop the bashing, the bullying, the twittering, tittering, humiliating, scapegoating? It will take many things, including an uptick in the movement, but I'm also a big believer in the power of books so I have have to believe that getting these books into teens' hands, getting them to read about what life is like for their victims, might play a role in convincing them to stop victimizing.

Queer youth: hang in there! Love is coming!

I've never told this to anyone except my lover Teresa but what is the internet for if not oversharing, and what is this moment for but saying what needs to be said?

When I was 19 and in the throes of coming out of the closet as a lesbian I tried to kill myself. I thoroughly botched the attempt, thank heavens, and perhaps that's because subconsciously I wasn't as sure of my decision as I thought I was, but I did think I couldn't face going forward in life. There were of course many and complicated reasons, but the main one was that I didn't feel strong enough for the life I believed was in store for me. What I thought was in store for me was being a weird pariah, being whispered about, made fun of, shunned, maltreated, at school, at work, in the world at large; losing all my friends; being alone and lonely forever. Above all, I expected to lose the love of my family once they knew I was a lesbian. I didn't see how I could survive that.

Now, at 56, I know that what was actually in store was very different. I didn't lose any of my old friends and I made many new ones in and out of the LGBT community over the years. Sure, I've lived in an anti-gay society and felt its effects in general and specific ways, but that's life under capitalism, you find your way through it and if you're lucky, like me, you find the struggle and find your voice via activism and tap into your righteous anger and find strength from that. You discover a community--the LGBT community, and sisters and brothers in other oppressed communities with whom you link up to wage united battle for equality and peace and justice.

As for my family, well, I can't report that things went all that well. It's one of the sadnesses of my life that my mother died before ever really coming around to acceptance and understanding as I'd like to think she would have eventually. But that doesn't mean she stopped loving me, she always did and always expressed it, and yes, these things are complex, your family can oppress and love you at the same time and you know what else? Somehow you get past the pain and disappointment and you grow and thrive and life your life. Even if your family never does embrace your true self the way they should, that does not destroy you. You find support elsewhere, from teachers and elders and friends and lovers, you look around and realize that the joy and fulfillment of living as your own true self, your gay as a goose queer as the moon self, will sustain you.

I've segued into speaking to you, my dear precious beloved queer children and youths, so let me go on and address you directly. You may feel like you're the only one. You may be sure your family and friends will reject you. You're not the only one, not by a longshot. And for most of you, your family and friends will not reject you. They'll keep loving you. Many will accept and embrace you immediately--that's the result of these last 40-some years of the LGBT liberation movement. We've changed consciousness. There is much less bigotry and ignorance. Still, there will be some who let you know that they love you but also express their displeasure. This will hurt you terribly, but remember that you've got the rest of your life to watch them change, watch them come around and get over their homophobia; and in any case, your self-worth does not, must not, depend on them.

For those few whose family, captive to reactionary ideology, do reject you, hang on! You will find love elsewhere. You'll end up with a whole other family. You will! This will not destroy you, not as long as you can hang on at this most difficult moment.

In addition to the terrible string of suicides this week, I heard a heartbreaking story a couple weeks ago from a schoolteacher friend. There is a 7-year-old child in her school who is transgender. He's a boy who identifies as a girl. He tells everyone that he's going to be a girl soon. His parents are kind and supportive, as is his teacher. But a couple weeks ago this child told a classmate about his feelings and his hopes and dreams to become a girl--and the classmate told him that this would entail many surgeries, much blood and pain, that he'd suffer a lot physically and never be normal or happy. Who knows where the other child heard this but he thoughtlessly, or perhaps maliciously in that mean way children sometimes have, said it to his friend the trans child. And the 7-year-old trans child went home and tried to kill himself that night. He tried to drown himself in the bathtub. Luckily, he was found in time and survived. But how tragic is this, that a little child, because of some ignorant oppressive twisted hurtfulness passed along by a schoolmate, felt that his life was without hope?

Hope is the thing to hold on to. If you don't know that you'll find your way forward, if you can't believe it just because all of us who've come through the other side are telling it to you, what you must do is hope for it. You'll only have to hope for a little while. Before you know it you'll find yourself living your own true life. 

Your way forward may be different than mine was. Maybe you'll play first base in a slow-pitch softball league and find the dyke friends and lovers of your dreams. Maybe you'll cuddle up with a batch of big hairy bears. Or join a gay chess club. Or write your way through the hard early years, and your writing will help show the way for the next batch of LGBT youth. Most of you won't end up as communist revolutionaries like I did (though some will, and I can't wait to meet you)--but the hope I hold on to is that many of you will turn toward activism of one sort or another. Because by taking action, by joining your sisters and brothers in united militant action, you'll help make things better, help bring us toward the day when no queer youth will even consider suicide. And you'll make your own life better, happier, fuller and more rewarding. I guarantee it.

The reason I've never told anyone about my own close call at age 19 is that I've felt deep shame about it. The fact that I nearly succumbed to homophobia always seemed such a weakness. Now I want to say to queer youth struggling with feeling hopeless, alone, unloved and unloveable that these feelings are not shameful--they are exactly what this oppressive society means for you to feel. There's nothing wrong with you, not for being queer and not for feeling scared. You've just got to hear and believe all of us telling you that it will get better.

I'm going to follow up as soon as I can with some notes about books for and about LGBT children and youth. Such books were few and far between, if they existed at all, when I was in my teens, but I know they would have been such a help. They do exist now. I'm going to study up on them.